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Up & Rolling

What you must know to start or improve a police bike unit



Kirby Beck | From the February 2010 Issue Monday, February 1, 2010

A 2003 Justice Department survey showed that 45% (5,695) of the U.S.’s 12,656 local police departments[1] and 16% (489) of the 3,061 sheriff’s offices[2] routinely employed bikes on a full-time, part-time or occasional basis. Why do they use bikes to patrol their communities? Because bikes work.

Bikes are cost-effective, stealthy, clean and quick. They can be used alone or with a patrol vehicle. They’re useful in nearly any environment, from traffic-choked urban streets to quiet residential areas, from parks and trails to crowded events and festivals—not to mention their effectiveness as a rapid mobile strike-force during demonstrations and in other crowd-control situations.

If you ask any veteran bike officer why they love bike patrol, most will describe positive, personal contacts and the ability to patrol nearly anywhere. They’ll also tell you about increased arrests and their community’s appreciation. All will have great stories about riding up on crimes in progress, virtually unseen and unheard.

If your department doesn’t have a bike team yet, it’s not too late. You can make it happen.

Getting Started
Before starting, secure some reference documents. A good place to start is the International Police Mountain Bike Association (IPMBA). It offers a free Police Bike Unit Start-Up Information Packet, as well as model policies and SOPs. Also useful would be a copy of IPMBA’s Complete Guide to Public Safety Cycling. For a valuable resource, visit www.ipmba.org.

When planning for a new (or improved) bike unit, the following general items must be considered:

  1. Mission; 
  2. Procurement of bikes; 
  3. Accessories, uniforms and equipment; 
  4. Personnel selection and training; 
  5. Bike maintenance and repair; and 
  6. Policies and standard operating procedures. 

More specifically, you may ask yourself: How will the bikes be used? Will they be deployed full time, part time or in a combination? Will the bikes be used at night, necessitating quality head- and taillights? Will they be transported on patrol vehicles, requiring suitable bike racks? Will bike officers each be assigned a bike or share a pool bike with others? Will they have a proactive role, or will they routinely respond to calls for service? Like most new things, it may be daunting at first, but once you’re up and rolling, the answers to each question will make sense.

Many departments start off small and gradually expand and modify the mission as bike officers come up with new applications and realize how comprehensively bicycles can be used. With training and experience, bike officers often surprise both peers and supervisors with their creativity in deploying bikes.

Personnel Are Key
Many administrators believe that police officers who are already bicycle enthusiasts will make the best bike officers. However, selecting only interested bike enthusiasts won’t guarantee the success of a new unit. Potential bike officers should be aggressive, proactive and self-motivated, and they must get along well with the public. One bike officer will speak to more people in a single shift than any five officers assigned to cars. The ability to deal with all sorts of people is important. Most good candidates can be taught to properly ride police bicycles, but the inner drive and motivation of a good, hard-working, community-oriented officer can’t be taught. They either have it, or they don’t.

Although it’s important for bike officer candidates to be fit, they don’t need to be in perfect condition. Their fitness can and will improve as they ride. Candidates without pre-existing problems with their backs, necks, knees or wrists are preferred, because these areas are particularly stressed while cycling. Many agencies require medical screenings to uncover any underlying health problems that may pose a risk to the officer.

Bring on the Bikes
Officers need high-quality mountain bikes with durable components to stand up to the rigors of the job. Bikes must handle all manner of obstacles, from stairs to slick rocks. Bikes are frequently dropped when pursuing and/or taking down suspects. Inexpensive, big-box store bikes or bikes from the impound lot rarely prove durable and safe enough to ride on duty. Bikes should be sourced from a reputable manufacturer, preferably one that offers a “police package” mountain bike. Trek, Volcanic, Cannondale, Fuji and Smith & Wesson are popular brands in police use, and other brands continue to emerge. The retail price of a good police-package bike averages about $700, excluding a headlight system.

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Kirby BeckKirby Beck is retired after 28 years with the Coon Rapids (Minn.) Police Department. He is a certified IPMBA Police Cyclist Instructor-Trainer. He now works as an expert in bicycle crash cases. He can be reached at Kirby@kbeckconsulting.com.


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